(Since it is the 5th of November, I thought it would be appropriate to finally write my London post and have it ready for Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night… Remember, remember when Layla wrote posts not 4 months later… 😉 )
On June 30, 2015, I got on a plane. I said goodbye to my home for the past year, tears in my eyes as the plane circled around Leipzig, heading westward. I was not ready to leave; I did not want to leave behind my new friends and a city I had gotten to know so well. All good things must come to end and so my Fulbright year came to its conclusion. However, that was not the end of my adventures.
When I was booking my flight back to Columbus, I thought that I’d make an extended layover in London. I knew months in advance that leaving Germany would be hard, so I thought one last hoorah in London would be exactly what I needed before coming back to the States and facing the inevitable reality of searching for a job. This trip to London differed from any of my previous travels for one reason: I was solo. I won’t get into solo traveling in this blog post (perhaps a separate one in the future?), but I will say traveling alone is extremely liberating and I definitely plan on doing it again!
I arrived at London Heathrow in the early afternoon, put my huge suitcase (which contained all my possessions I had brought to/accumulated in Germany) into storage at the airport, bought my Oyster card, and was on my way to the city via the tube. Throughout my year as an ETA, I had the chance to learn a lot about England, and specifically London. English text books in Germany generally highlight the United Kingdom instead of the US, Canada, Australia, etc, so I had a good idea of all the places I wanted to check out, but more importantly, where in the city I wanted to stay. Upon recommendations from friends and even my mentor, I knew I had to find a hostel in Camden, the alternative, counter-culture neighborhood in the north of the city. My hostel was decent, nothing special. I was only there to shower and sleep.
After checking-in, making my bed, and rushing through all the other hostel logistics, I headed out to East End for a Jack the Ripper walking tour. Now, I’ve mentioned this in blog posts before and I will say it again in the future: walking tours about weird/paranormal/haunted/murderous stuff are the best. The guides are more enthusiastic and tell you stories that are more interesting– all around more memorable because you get to see the places that aren’t necessarily touristy, but still are intriguing and definitely authentic. This tour was no different. For two hours, we walked around old parts of London, following the footsteps of Jack the Ripper circa 1888. We stopped by locales and bars rumored to have been the murderer’s stomping grounds. We heard numerous theories about who was the serial killer? Because til this day, we still have no idea who killed (at least) five innocent women over the course of a few months. It was oddly a great way to start off my time in London, but as a 23-year-old female, walking alone after hearing all about Jack the Ripper, I felt a little unsettled navigating back to my hostel. 😉
The next morning, I decided to go on another free walking tour, but this time of the typical London sights. This tour was memorable for two reasons: 1. the guide was an Australian ex-pat in England with Scottish roots and 2. it was the hottest July day ever on record in London at 99°F/37°C. It was borderline miserable. We met at Parliament Square and walked all around central London for almost three hours and saw:
- Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben)
- Houses of Parliament
- Westminster Abbey
- Horse Guards Parade
- St. James’s Park
- Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards
- Trafalgar Square
…and many more sights in between!
While on the tour, I met another solo traveler from Russia, so when the tour ended, we stuck together and walked around some of the other sights we didn’t get the chance to visit. We got along very well! It turned out she was an English teacher in Moscow and she was convincing me to be an ETA at her school (which I would TOTALLY do!). I got a chance to brush up on my minimal Russian and get the solo traveler’s experience of meeting new people. While out and about, we saw:
- Tower Bridge
- Tower of London/Crown jewels
- St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
- ate fish and chips! So delicious! 😀
After a super long day of sightseeing and *gasp* being social, I headed back to Camden in the evening to regain some of my energy. Now, I’ll be honest: one of the reasons I chose to visit London opposed to other possible destinations like Reykjavik or countless others is because of one phenomena: #CheekyNandos. I wanted to try Nando’s, a popular chicken chain restaurant in the UK and other parts of the world. But it isn’t just a restaurant that specializes in delicious peri peri chicken; no, with the spicy marinated poultry comes a culture. Even in Camden, hordes of lads would come walking in and enjoy some cheeky Nando’s (like, they know they shouldn’t be eating it, but one half chicken won’t do any harm, right? Naughty, naughty…) and banter. I witnessed it once and I think I’m good til the next time I visit London xD I also walked around Camden a bit, checked out the markets, and roamed around the Camden Lock for a bit.
For my final full day in London, I saved the most anticipated activity for last: the Warner Bros. Studio Tour– the Making of Harry Potter. But before I headed north to Leavesden, where literal heaven on earth awaited me, I went over to Piccadilly Circus in central London. This area is in many ways the Times Square of London– there are massive electronic screens and marquees displaying news and advertisements, as well as loads of people and shops. I then headed to Emirates Stadium, where Arsenal FC plays! If I was in the city longer, I definitely would have made an effort to actually go on a tour of the grounds (and check out the other soccer stadiums in and around London!), but I only had time to walk around, check out the statues and signs, and stop in their team shop to buy a scarf. It was a beautiful stadium and a great way to end my “Stadium Tour of Europe.”
Now comes the part of the trip that I had anticipated the most. Where the passion and genuine excitement of my adventure in London lies. I had booked my visit for the Making of Harry Potter tour before I even booked a hostel. That’s how enthusiastic I was for this moment. And I shall break the experience down for you, because frankly, I want to relive that day. To get to Leavesden from London, I had to take a train about 30 minutes north. Upon arriving at the Leavesden train station, I was greeted by a black, Harry Potter decorated double-decker bus that would be my means of transportation to the studio lot itself.
Arriving at the lot was a lot to take in and I barely knew what awaited on the other side of the glass doors. Outside stood giant wizard chess pieces from the set of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, so we were off to a great start! I walked in, picked up my ticket, and waited in the queue until it was my turn to enter. Luckily, even while waiting to get in, there were still props and sets to keep you entertained!
When it was finally my turn to enter, we were first seated into a tiny theater for a brief introduction about the history of the Warner Bros. Studios lot and the role it played in the making of the Harry Potter films. All of the films were partially filmed here, and the actors and actresses of the film spoke of their experiences on set. It was a great way to begin the tour! We then funneled into a room which housed the front door to Hogwarts. It was massive. A guide briefly went on about the details and specs of the door, and finally asked the crowd if it was anyone’s birthday. Luckily for one girl, it was, and she was asked to help the guide push open the large, wooden and metal ornamented doors. On the other side was the magic of the Great Hall. Everyone, myself included, stood in disbelief as we were now in one of the most iconic places captured in the films and described beautifully in the books. Standing around the perimeter of the hall (sorted by house, of course) were mannequins wearing costumes from the movies, as well as props and the various professors of Hogwarts!
After having some time to roam around the Great Hall, the guide told us all about the set and mentioned that it is considered a “hot set,” meaning if needed, filming could take place here right now. Everything was in place, though there is that disappointing reality when you look up and see cables and support beams instead of floating candles or constellations. 😉 It was at this point when the guided portion of the tour ended and we were free to explore the rest of the lot at our own pace. The guide mentioned that there was once a man who stayed at the lot for 13 hours, just browsing, reading every last word of the displays. Commitment! I clocked in at around 3.5 hours, I believe, but I could have easily stayed longer!
Once leaving the Great Hall, it was completely overwhelming to step into the warehouses. Sets, props, costumes, you name it were there for all to see. The very gadgets and knick-knacks that we all loved in the movies were 2 inches away from me. It’s not often that I am at a loss of words, but this is one of them. Excuse the pun, but it was in every sense of the word magical. Like most people my age, Harry Potter (books and films) have played such an important role in our lives. It was my first chapter book that I willingly chose to read. We grew up alongside Harry, Ron, and Hermione. We learned from them and sometimes felt the same evolution of emotions as they did, too. So to be in the presence of the Mirror of Erised or the time-turner or all (!!!) of the wands was a very surreal moment. I don’t want to say it was nostalgic, because Harry Potter is still a big part of my life, so I’ll just say it was a significant milestone in my life as a Harry Potter nerd.
Instead of describing all the things I saw (because that would be near impossible), I thought this next section would be dedicated to the hundreds of photos I took (don’t worry, not posting them all)! Plus, a picture speaks a thousand words; words that I could not articulate. And pictures are more interesting that what I have to say anyway!
*Break time* SO COOL! But we’re not done yet…
Overall, the Warner Bros. Studio tour was incredible. The pictures above are only a glimpse of what one actually sees and there is so much information to be read while browsing. It really makes you appreciate the films and the thousands of people it took to make the movies. I 100% recommend it to anyone, not just Harry Potter fans, but lovers of film as well.
Later that evening, once I was back in the city, I met up with my fellow Sachsen ETA, Rose! She arrived in London that day and thought we’d end our Fulbright experience like it began– exploring a city! It was a very full circle moment, as my first trip during my Fulbright year was with Rose around Poland. We met up, walked along the south bank of the River Thames and the London Eye and managed to take some amazing golden hour photos of the Houses of Parliament. Great way to spend my last night in London!
The next morning was spent around Camden, enjoying the sights and smells of the neighborhood before I had to get back on the tube to London Heathrow. My visit was extremely short and like most of my travels, I feel like I barely made a dent in all the possible things I could have seen or done or eaten. But my visit there was extremely fulfilling. I came to this city alone, but never once did I feel it. Yes, I was surrounded by crowds at all times, but I found myself being open and chatting with other people, whether it was just the waiter at Nando’s or my new Russian friend I spent an afternoon with. It’s a city I would further like to get to know in the future, but until then, London will be calling. (sorry, I’ll just walk out on that one… xD )